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A Jolly Roger jam

Pirates like those who seized a ship full of arms off Somalia pose a real threat. Foreign navies need to act.

October 06, 2008

Shiver our timbers -- there be pirates afoot. Only today's pirates don't sport parrots on their shoulders or hooks in place of hands; they tend to be Al Qaeda-affiliated, drug-addled thieves and kidnappers who operate off the shores of a country that in some ways makes Afghanistan look like the garden spot of the Middle East. And, unlike the days when the British Royal Navy and the East India Company could be counted on to blast pirate ships to Davy Jones' locker on sight, the world's naval forces are doing shockingly little to stop them.

The cost of the rampant piracy off the coast of Somalia, which has been worsening for years, was brought home in dramatic fashion in late September with the capture of a Ukrainian cargo ship by maritime marauders. The capture itself wasn't unusual, but the cargo was: The Faina was carrying 33 Russian-built T-72 tanks, as well as assorted small arms. Setting aside a brewing controversy about the ultimate destination of these weapons, with the Kenyan government claiming to be the buyer and the U.S. Navy saying they were headed for Sudan, there's the even more troubling question of why Somali pirates had the chance to seize this dangerous booty to begin with.

In June, the United Nations authorized foreign navies to enter Somalian territorial waters in pursuit of pirates. There is no shortage of warships that could do the job; a coalition naval force has been patrolling the area for years, including ships from the United States, Canada, Britain and France, yet it has been reluctant to take on the pirates. In part, this may be because of concerns about human rights and loopholes in international law -- it's unclear what should be done with captured pirates, given that turning them over to what passes for a government in Somalia could expose them to mutilation or beheading. But a bigger factor is probably that navies don't see protecting merchant ships as part of their mission, and the merchants haven't been willing to invest in proper security measures.

That's a miscalculation by both sides. Somalia is a failed state torn by fighting among competing warlords and a Taliban-like Muslim insurgency. Its troubles are worsened by the pirates, who collect multimillion-dollar ransoms from shippers and use the money to prop up lawless factions within the country. Failed states like this one are breeding grounds for terrorist movements, which is why coalition naval forces must team up with shippers and make fighting pirates a higher priority.

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